Toy stores seem like the perfect haven for children, don't they? They're colorful, warm, and you could get lost for hours in playhouses and pits of stuffed animals. They feel like a sanctuary, a safe zone away from the harsh realities of the world.
At least, I thought that was the case until a few years ago.
I loved toy stores when I was a kid. I dragged my parents into every one we came across while in town or on vacation, and I always felt like nothing bad would ever happen there. One store in particular will always be scorched in my memory: a little traditional toy store in the heart of Cyprus, surrounded by old fashioned architecture and blooming plant life. It was filled to the rafters with porcelain dolls, pirate costumes, and fluffy teddies, and while my parents browsed the various boutiques next door, I was content to immerse myself in this wondrous place. It was one of my favorite toy stores to date, but the only difference between this store and all of the others, was the fact that my instinct of safety was wrong.
What must have been minutes into my visit, a man slowly approached me. He was probably in his 60s, but other than that he wasn't all too physically memorable, he just looked like any older man on the street. It didn't take me long to realize that he was the owner of this store. Armed with a wide smile and a stereotypical "toy maker" look, he instantly began fawning over me, declaring me, a 7-year-old girl all alone in this place, as the most adorable thing he'd ever seen, the sweetest and most precious child. He was looking at me like I was some rare doll on his shelf. At the time I didn't look too deeply into his random sense of affection towards a total stranger, but I did feel deeply embarrassed by the attention. I was a pretty attention-seeking kid, but when it came to strangers, I always preferred to blend into the background. Looking back, I suppose it was less shyness, and more survival instinct.
Throughout my browsing, he proceeded to follow me around, picking toys off his shelf to hand to me, placing bonnets on my head like he was my personal shopper. I felt like a doll, probably because he kept comparing me to one.
By this point, you'd probably assume he was just trying to sell sell sell, but at no point did he suggest in his near-perfect English that I ask my parents for more pocket money, and when they eventually walked in to check on me, he didn't turn a sell on them either. In fact, he toned down the fawning demeanor and chatted with them like regular strangers on vacation would chat.
All this by itself is nothing too alarming, just uncomfortable, but what happened next would turn anyone's discomfort into panic. At some point, my parents left once more — after all, they thought this was a safe place to leave me while they had some alone time, that there was nothing sinister about this impromptu babysitter. I was still browsing happily, too distracted by the toys to really think about the situation, when suddenly I felt movement around me. Without warning or consent, I felt a peck on my hair, and I looked up to see the toymaker smiling at me like Santa Claus, like what he had just done was at all normal.
At some point, while the rest of the visit turned into a blur, I managed to slip away and rejoin my parents in the parking lot, but as we began getting into the car to leave I saw the man rush out of his store. He waved dramatically like I was a sailor going off to war, blowing kisses and calling out, "Goodbye, Stephanie!" in a longing tone. I'll never forget the tone, or how I slid down in my seat to avoid being seen as we drove away.
It could have been a lot worse, but a grown male stranger should not be kissing a 7-year-old girl, alone, and secretly, or any child for that matter. I didn't really know this as a kid because I had been used to grandparents and aunties giving smothering hugs and kisses; I figured it was the same thing, but I was dead wrong. That embarrassment wasn't a natural reaction to a natural "fatherly" moment, it was a warning, a warning that took around fifteen years to finally kick in, that what happened was not something to be brushed off as normal.
But that's the way friends and family members for a long time saw it, after I did eventually tell people about what happened. Typically I was met with responses such as "Oh, he was just being friendly," and "That's the way people in that country treat foreigners," as well as the old chestnut, "You're looking into it too deeply, he was just lonely!"
I suppose it took my long overdue journey into feminism to come to the conclusion that this memory just wasn't right. While I began to learn about sexual assault, child abuse, the sexualisation of children in the media, as well as pedophilia, it suddenly hit me one day: Had I met a pedophile? Had a pedophile kissed me on the head?
I refuse to buy that he was just lonely, or overly friendly, and it makes me feel sick how society can't see the difference between normal behavior and legitimate sexual abuse. This is exactly what happens with stories like this: They're normalized, rationalized, and even romanticized, misinterpreted over and over until the clear warning signs are coated in nothing but lies and sugar.
We can't continue to shrug this kind of thing off. He may not have raped me, or attacked me, but his behavior should have warranted action, because if we ignore these "small" warning signs, then it may not be long until someone else gets more than just a sign, more than an uncomfortable walk through a toy store and a sinister kiss.
If we continue to shrug this stuff off, then it leads to victim blaming, erasure, and little boys growing up to believe that their sexual urges can be practiced without consent. It enables every sexual abuser and pedophile to continue their behavior, we praise them for being so openly emotional, and let them wander the world simply because "they haven't done anything worth jailing yet."
If I wasn't such a naive child, or if I were an educated adult looking on as a man did this to an unsuspecting child, then I'd feel sick, I'd try and stop it, try anything to spread the word about him and get the child to safety. I only wish I'd told someone back then, and have them believe me.
I don't have many vivid memories from my childhood, but I guess there's a reason why this one has always been so lucid. Because even back then I knew it wasn't right, I knew I was supposed to remember it. Children, unfortunately, need to be taught to recognize these warning signs, and what to do when or if it happens. So that one day they're not stuck in a warm, safe feeling toy store, thinking that the attention that the toymaker is giving them is anything other than sinful and dangerous.
Top photo: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
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Stephanie Watson, though originally a fiction and poetry writer, is a very feminist freelance journalist and editor. Hailing from Scotland, the land of unpredictable weather, she is mostly found cuddled up in her room working on a new article, or watching Summery YouTube videos. You can find more of her work at Fembot, HelloGiggles, and Bitch Media, or watch her tweet via @Stephie__Watson.